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About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.

As a Brazilian jiu jitsu coach, the subject I am asked most about by students is improvement. People want to know how to train in order to improve, how to improve more quickly, why they are not improving and so on. BJJ is fun, but most participants desire to see real advancement in their games in addition to enjoyment, as it can be time-consuming and difficult. This can present a problem, as BJJ is a marathon and not a sprint; improvement takes time and often is not as obvious as in other sports or life endeavors. With this in mind, here are some things that we can look for that indicate that our BJJ is in fact improving.

Indicator #1:  Self-Correction
One of the most overlooked signals of improvement is when we begin effectively correcting our own mistakes on the mat. The funny thing about this is that often, when this starts happening, we focus more on the mistakes that we are making and not the fact that we are showing progress by recognising and eliminating them.  Self-correction in BJJ implies both a certain amount of acquired technical knowledge and a willingness to constructively evaluate.

My students can attest to the fact that my favourite saying is, “Abs are the second most important muscles in BJJ”.  The most important muscle is the brain and as we get more skilled in using our brains on the mat, we see exponential growth in our BJJ games. BJJ is a combat sport and as we drill techniques and spar, we are measuring the end result on our partner. As we grow in technical knowledge and skill, we are able to produce better initial results but the real leap forward is when we are able to make the correct changes either during or after the engagement on our own.  Whether in drilling, positional training or live rolling, gauging the result of what we are doing and being able to make the necessary adjustments should always been taken as a significant sign of improvement.

Indicator #2:  Rolling with Less Advanced Students!
Justin Parsons, head instructor at Helix BJJ, often visits my gym in Atlanta, Georgia (Buckhead Jiu Jitsu). Before starting our academies, we were training partners and both taught classes at Creighton MMA, so I have seen his BJJ from different angles and perspectives. One of the best things about Justin’s BJJ is his ability to effectively train with less advanced students. By “less advanced”, I mean students who may be less technically adept, less athletic, smaller in stature and/or have some other distinct disadvantage in relation to him. Over the years, I have continued to be impressed with Justin’s ability to spar with these people in a way that is “competitive” while often protecting both himself and them.  I have seen him go from training with uber-athletic, big guys right to petite, new women and afterwards everyone involved was happy, feeling good and dripping with sweat.

That ability not only speaks to Justin’s willingness but also to his very advanced Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Much of the time, we measure ourselves by how many people we can “tap” or “beat” on the mat. When we find ourselves not adding to that list, we assume that we are not improving. The problem with this is that we are not training in a vacuum…others are training and growing, too.  When we make victory our only or main measure of success, we put key variables out of our control. Opening our eyes to the advancement that being able to roll well with less advanced student represents expands our perceptions of actual growth while taking advantage of our full pool of training partners.

Indicator #3:  Coach turns it up!
“Who is the toughest guy you have ever rolled with”?  If I had a dollar for every time I have been asked this question, I would be a very rich man.  The interesting thing about this answer is how it is connected to our current subject: indicators of improvement.

Coming up at the Yamasaki Academy, Franciso Neto was one of my main instructors - along with Mario and Fernando Yamasaki. I spent lots of time in his classes and doing privates with him on the weekends as a blue and purple belt. My results in tournaments and even in sparring steadily improved, but when Neto and I rolled, the result was always the same: he smashed me! It did not matter what tournament I just won or who else I could now submit, Neto would handle me with what seemed like the same ruthless efficiency.

One day, after another “beat-down”, I was fairly frustrated at my lack of progress and asked him about it. Neto said that not only did I do well, but I had always done well when we sparred in his opinion. It surprised me and made me look at our engagements in a different light. I started seeing the fact that he shut my game down as a compliment and respect for my BJJ as opposed to seeing it as a reflection of some lack of quality on my part.

Now, as an instructor, I have come full circle.  I recently found myself consoling one of my students after he asked why it was so easy for me to “shut down” his game.  I told him that not only was it not easy, but the fact that I had to shut his game down speaks to how far his BJJ has come. Learning to recognise that a “step-back” in outcome can have more to do with an increased sense of urgency or a higher level of respect from our instructors and senior training partners opens our eyes to real advancement in our BJJ.

Indicator #4:  We plateau!
We do not normally associate improvement with “plateauing”.  A plateau usually represents a period of frustration, poor results and even regression.  If we continue to consistently train, what it can also mean is imminent progression. Consider the process of muscular growth.  We break down our muscles when we lift weights and the gains occur when we rest.  The growth is happening as we sleep rather than when we are lifting.  This is perhaps an over-simplification but it provides a valuable lesson for us on the mat.  Sometimes when we believe we are not growing, we are actually going through an important phase of the development process.  It brings to mind a very popular saying, “Often we learn more from defeat than we do from victory”.  The challenge for us is not to see a plateau as an indicator that we should quit or to allow it to impact us negatively.  We need to have faith in our training that, even though we may not be aware of them, positive things are happening or will happen as a result of the work we are putting in.  When we do that, we transform plateaus into precursors of progression!

In Brazilian jiu jitsu, we are often our own toughest critics. While nothing is wrong with pushing ourselves, we must temper that with being able to recognise real advancement.  Being aware of these indicators of improvement will help us maintain a healthy mindset by highlighting and acknowledging the forward steps we are taking in the training process.  Recognition and affirmation of improvement is key to our longevity in and long-term enjoyment of BJJ as a sport and lifestyle. See you on the mat!

December 18, 2019 — Jiu Jitsu Style